The Finale Factor
August 5th, 2009
While I accept any and all criticism of reality television as far as the sheer gluttony of the stuff that arrived on the airwaves over the past decade or so, I will say right now that the “Finale” is the reason the genre has continued to appeal to me. There is something about sheer uncertainty that few scripted programs can really match, as there is often no way to choreograph (eww, sorry) the twists and turns that could potentially happen. With shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race, any small snafu could completely alter the power structure, leaving your expectations in tatters on the floor while an unexpected winner is crowned. That’s the kind of story that keeps me hooked on (good) reality television, and the kind of story that makes me believe the genre has a definite place.
However, for shows like So You Think You Can Dance and its musical counterpart, American Idol, there isn’t always that same sense of uncertainty. Sure, there’s always a chance that expectations can be defeated, but for the most part things have been narrowed to the point where the final performances are not a surprise, and where the result is more a foregone conclusion. Last year, I don’t think anyone believed that Joshua, with his combination of braces and some fantastic and memorable routines was beyond likeable, was going to lose, so the suspense was somewhat gone. On these shows, dancers give so many performances that there is a lot of empirical evidence for how audiences are responding and voting, and as a result one can feel like the finale is only going to cement what has already taken place.
All of this being said, I feel as if this fifth season finale of So You Think You Can Dance is an example of a finale that has only further complicated what has been a very difficult to read season. Most thought that Brandon and Janette, so strong throughout the competition, were going to sail into the finals, but both found themselves in the Bottom at Top 8 and Janette even went home. Evan, meanwhile, has lacked a single breakout performance, and yet has never fallen into the bottom. The top two girls, meanwhile, are Kayla the Partner Killer, who was regularly in the Bottom Three, and Jeanine, who carried Philip early in the competition before emerging as a powerhouse when it mattered most.
The result is a competition that’s too close to call, but based on the evening’s events I think we can say that this is a finale that will truly matter.
I know that Todd VanDerWerff (Of TV on the Internet and The A.V. Club) has been in love with Jeanine since day one, but I think this finale cemented it for me. Not only did she provide the most engaging solo in terms of personality on the evening, but she managed to luck out into being part of the three best dances of the night, delivering in a big way in all of them. Her Jazz piece with Evan showed off her power, her Paso Doble with Brandon her technical skill, and her contemporary piece with Mia her ability to tell a story. However, on top of all of that, she was simply adorable all evening: trying to take over Cat’s interview with her, talking about her relationship with the floor, and capping it all off with the beyond charming “Oh my god, that was awesome” at her skirt swirl to the camera during rehearsals with Brandon. The judges seemed to be in love with her tonight, and I challenge anyone to say that they didn’t feel the same by the end of the evening.
I think that’s holding Brandon and Evan back is that they only really have half of the package. There is no question that Brandon can give people goosebumps, but he isn’t the world’s more loveable dancer. He’s by far the most consistent performer the show has had this season, never struggling with a style and excelling every week, but there’s something about that that lacks in humanity, and humility. I don’t buy those who say that Brandon is fake, because I don’t think that’s his issue. Instead, I think that he delivers technically so consistently that he never gets a chance to show his personality in the way that others had when they’ve been vulnerable. And when that did start to emerge, with his crisis of self-confidence, he had been doing well for so long that it doesn’t match up with what viewers are seeing, even thought we can’t really see inside of his head to judge its authenticity.
Evan, meanwhile, has worn his heart on his sleeve the entire time, and that’s what has kept him in this competition. Evan literally had the crowd chanting his name, and there’s a sense that he is the ultimate underdog. He cried about his brother in his interview, he kept smiling as all of the judges indicated that he getting overshadowed by every other dancer, and there’s something about that congeniality that will go places. However, in the end, Mr. Congeniality doesn’t feel like enough to legitimately win this competition. He has been dancing well the entire competition, but he has always been overshadowed, and even when he was given his own style (like in his solo, or even in some dances) he hasn’t stood out as he should have. Nigel was right to question his lack of growth, and comparing him to any of the other three dancers in terms of skill is not going to come out in his favour.
The problem for both men is that they did nothing to change that opinion tonight: Evan struggled as he always has, Brandon excelled as he always has, and they’re right where they left off. The same goes for Kayla: Mia called her perfection a few weeks ago, and there’s really nowhere to go from there. She came out, she danced well, but it seemed like it was just consistent. By comparison, Jeanine was talked about as an underdog not unlike Evan, but one who had evolved to the point of outperforming her competitors, and proving herself comparable to Kayla.
And that’s really where both Kayla and Brandon fit in this environment: they’re measuring sticks by which Evan and Jeanine’s relative success or failure have been measured. Brandon and Kayla were there from the very beginning, and have remained strong competitors throughout the competition. Kayla, however, struggled with the voters, landing in the bottom numerous times where she was saved by the judges and has managed to outlast other competitors as the Top 10 went on. However, Jeanine has shown that magical growth, the sense that she started out as below Kayla and has emerged in order to eclipse her. For every perfect step Kayla takes, Jeanine takes one that feels more momentous, and that’s a factor that this finale highlighted at nearly every turn.
In the end, I’m cheering for Jeanine, content with Brandon or Kayla victories, and believe that Evan simply didn’t live up to expectation enough for me to even consider him for the title of America’s “Favourite” dancer. But, all I know for now is that the intersection of fanbase (where Evan has an advantage), quality of dance (Brandon and Kayla in terms of consistency, Jeanine on the evening itself) and the notion of growth (where Jeanine has the upper hand) has made for a really compelling finale, and one I’ll watch with much interest, if not quite suspense.
- The crowd wasn’t happy with the judges picking on Evan, or for Adam Shankman’s somewhat disappointed response to the existence of the Country Jive during the finale, but I personally thought it was a breath of fresh air: while Cowell loves to pit the performers against each other in the finale, it felt like they were being critical and observational to varying degrees, and I like that level of contextuality in finale judging.
- I like that they forced all dancers into a ballroom routine, but I do have to wonder the degree to which it was fair to note have any Hip Hop in the finale. I thought Evan and Brandon’s Pop Jazz piece was pretty lame, and it seemed like we were missing the Hip Hop element (that even Travis and Benji had to do).
- I like that Wade is able to choreograph such a diverse range of styles: the cheerleading/jock piece was a fun little trifle, whereas some of the rest of his stuff is dark, twisted, and downright weird. I think he and Mia are definitely the show’s most memorable choreographers, and both have branched out a bit in the past few seasons with a combination of some dark/emotional pieces and others which are a bit more fun and floaty.
- Consensus of the group I was watching with was that Cat’s outfit was hideous, which should mean her outfit for the results should be good if she follows her usual pattern. As far as her hosting goes, though, she had a lot of fun with the larger stage, and her calling out Adam Shankman out for not being man enough to pick a favourite was a highlight of the evening.